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Monday, April 21, 2014

Walking the (Aurelian) Wall: Porta Metronia to Porta Maggiore

The Aurelian Wall, section east of Porta San Giovanni.  Garbage, mud, feral cats, broken fountains,
 dog walks, but still powerful.  Days after we were there, Il Messaggero reported that citizens of the
 neighborhood just to the left of this photo were upset over abusive (illegal)vendors selling stolen (and
 thrown away) goods on the sidewalk next to the park.  (Dianne:they should be upset about more than that.)

The American President Teddy Roosevelt is best known for charging up San Juan Hill with his Roughriders, but his taste for adventure could take other forms.  One of the things he liked to do with similarly inclined buddies was to set a compass direction from the White House and follow it as closely as possible, through back yards and alleys, industrial sites and cemeteries, wherever it led.  By leaving the well-traveled streets and sidewalks behind, Roosevelt hoped to experience the nation's capitol in a fresh way.

Only Presidents can do that sort of thing without being shot, and even a man as resourceful and determined as Teddy would have trouble applying the idea in Rome, where enormous apartment blocks--not to mention uncooperative portieri (doormen)--would present insuperable obstacles.

Yet in the spirit of Roosevelt (and his successors, the Guy Debord-led Situationists of the postwar era, with their concept of the dérive), we took a stab at rearranging the city--at seeing it in a new way--by setting a goal of walking the entire Aurelian Wall, starting with a reasonable portion, of course.

The Aurelian Wall was built in 271-75 AD, replacing the earlier, smaller Servian Wall, of which just a few pieces remain.  The Aurelian Wall, in contrast, remains intact in large stretches, perhaps covering as much as half of its original 19 km (12 mile) length.  It was built quickly in response to a 270 AD barbarian invasion, in part by incorporating existing structures, like the Pyramid.  Some scholars estimate as much as 1/6 of the wall was existing structures (spoiler alert - we found some on this walk!).  Popes and others rebuilt and refashioned the wall over the years.  But it remains an impressive artifact of ancient and Renaissance history, and a constant part of one's life in today's Rome. [Update: a Google map includes this itinerary.]

Porta Metronia
Just as the wall cuts through Rome in some curious ways--you can't follow the wall in an automobile or a scooter (though Nanni Moretti tried for a bit in his film, Caro Diario), or even, now and then, on foot--so did we find ourselves moving through the Eternal City in new and unexpected ways, through parks we had never been in before, on streets we had never traveled, amid Romans ruins we didn't know existed.  Here's a brief account of our first adventure in "walking the wall."

We began our journey at Porta Metronia (in our neighborhood), walking counterclockwise inside the wall.  Here one can see how this portion of the fortification was constructed--its stairways and passageways--as well as how it's used today, by birds that nest comfortably in holes once meant for drainage and observation of the enemy.  There's a piece of graffiti here, too--a reddish piece featuring an animal resembling Fritz the Cat--but it's on a piece of the wall coated with an unusual flat surface; the wall itself, we noticed on our trek, is essentially untouched by the city's street artists. 

Birds in the wall
Construction of Metro Line C obscures the wall for a few hundreds meters, though one can see it through small holes in the construction fences and, here and there, as a truck or bulldozer exits or enters the construction site.  As the wall approaches the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, it appears to be only a few feet high, and, indeed, from the inside (only) it is, because the church--and the wall--are located high on a hill.  We discovered many portions of the wall were constructed so that the wall was high from the outside, but supported by hills and earth on the inside, appearing much shorter from that perspective.
The wall--low here on top of a hill--appears between
the orange fence and the truck
wedding photo

On the grounds of the basilica, we observed a couple being photographed after their wedding.  We entered the basilica from the side and back and walked out the front. 

A gathering.  Roma? 

Beyond the basilica, the wall took us by the site of what appeared to be large gathering of Roma (and to our left, the tacky vendor tents in front of Borromini's church), then along the impressive and complex grounds of Porta San Giovanni, now, unfortunately, closed to the public.

Dry fountain

Crossing via Appia Nuova, we found ourselves in a long and narrow park, with 2 dog walks, feral black cats, mounds of garbage, and dry (20th-century) fountains in which water once flowed down toward the wall.  Once upon a time there was vision here, but no more.

Kounellis art-gate

Ahead, the wall seemed to curve rather oddly to the right and end at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  There, in the piazza that fronts the church, was an unexpected treat: an enormous art nouveau-style decorative (yet functional) gate, created by Rome-based artist Jannis Kounellis in 2007 and featuring dozens of  suspended ball-like objects of colored glass.

Ruins of the Circo Variano, then the wall

But where's the wall?  To the left of the church we headed inward, past a gate (there is public access here, though the entrance is somewhat intimidating), and ahead an historical marker, in Italian.  Looking past the marker, and past some archaeological digs (more on them in a moment) is the wall and, behind it (across a street, as it turns out), offices of the Italian daily newspaper, Il Messaggero.

The guys who set us straight

We turned left at the marker, then right under the arcade of the Museum of Musical Instruments, speculating as we went that the wall-like structure across the field to our left was an aqueduct.  Ahead, at the juncture of the "L" made by two long buildings, we were again considering what it was we were observing when we encountered two men, one carrying schematic drawings of the area.

Wall turns sharply left.  Filled-in arches suggest it was (also) an
aqueduct, another use of existing structures to create the wall.

Responding to our questions, he pulled out a clean sheet of paper, hastily drew his own general diagram of the area, and explained that the wall we had thought was an aqueduct was, indeed, the Aurelian wall (from the end of the 2nd building, just past what he called the "baretta" [cute little bar], one can see it make a sharp left turn, though one cannot get closer here).  And, he continued, the new arcaded buildings, much of the grounds of which we could see, and the terra on which we were standing were all part of the Circo Variano, a huge entertainment complex built by Severian emperors in the first few decades of the 3rd century AD and as yet barely touched by archaeologists. As the man told us, they can't get at the ruins because they now lie under many city buildings.

The relevant spaces are in the left third of this aerial view.
At lower left, the dotted-line oval is the anfiteatro (Amphitheater
 Castrense), with the Aurelian wall going off to the right and up.
  Above the open field at left/center is the Aurelian wall, having
 turned left. The long white markings demark the Circo Variano.

Porta Maggiore: two aqueducts--Aqua Claudia, on top of
 Annio Novus--on high.  Later became part of the Aurelian Wall

Back in the church "piazza," we turned right to locate the wall as it emerged from the complex of buildings.  We walked past a museum honoring the Sardinian military (closed for renovations), past a monumental turn-of-the-20th century building that now houses administrative offices for Acea, the electrical utility.  And there was the wall, jutting into Piazza Maggiore and meeting there an enormous aqueduct, two water chambers on its top.

Here we turned back, now on the outside of the wall, underneath the Tangenziale (elevated highway) and made an immediate right down the left side of viale Castrense.  Across the street was the wall, curved here to incorporate and accommodate the Anfiteatro (amphiteater) Castrense, its Corinthian columns now embedded in the wall.  We had been by here dozens of times and never noticed the curve of the wall or the columns, nor considered that they might be the ruins of an ancient structure.  The amphitheater is one of the "existing" structures that was incorporated into the Aurelian Wall to hasten its construction.

The surprise of the day; Rome's second coliseum:  Anfiteatro Castrense; the arches
 were filled in about 50 years after it was built,when the wall was constructed.
Those 3rd century AD columns are still there.

Now following the outside of the wall, we crossed the street at the arches and hugged the sidewalk to the left.  Ahead, back at Porta San Giovanni, we headed up via Appia Nuova, toward home.


1 comment:

Roberto said...

An interesting project. I think you'll find that there are/were 3 aqueduct channels on the Porta Maggiore arches. I was taught that the top one was the Anio Novus, below that the Aqua Claudia, and buried within the structure is the still-active Acqua Felice built by Pope Sixtus V in 1586. It is celebrated by the Moses Fountain not far from Piazza d. Repubblica. The view of the Servian Wall from Google Earth's close-up angled shots give another perspective of your ground-level discoveries.